Antisemitism in the United States dates back to colonial times, and its propagators have included not only supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan but such widely hailed heroes as Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh and even a Catholic priest with a popular radio show. This map takes a historical look at the “longest hatred,” in both the public and private sectors, in a nation founded on the tenet of religious freedom for everyone.
American antisemitism is older than the nation itself. In the mid-1600s, when New York was New Amsterdam, the settlement’s director-general, Peter Stuyvesant, warned against allowing the “deceitful race” free entry, lest they “further infect and trouble this new colony.” Although the U.S. Constitution granted religious freedom to all in 1791, some states restricted the rights of Jewish citizens into the late 19th century. As waves of European immigrants—including 2 million Jews—entered the country during the 20th century’s first decades, antisemitism swelled, reaching a bursting point during the 1913 Leo Frank trial and its aftermath. A Jewish businessman, Frank was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of teenager Mary Phagan, but Georgia’s governor, doubting Frank’s guilt, commuted the sentence to life in prison. A group of prominent Georgia citizens, including law officers and a former governor, responded by lynching Frank in 1915. His ordeal inspired the Jewish community to form the Anti-Defamation League, dedicated to stopping “discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens.” Georgia bigots formed a second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan, dedicated to “exalting the Caucasian Race” and thwarting the freedoms of blacks, Jews, Catholics, communists, immigrants and others.
Somewhat akin to a modern blog, The Dearborn Independent became Model T inventor Henry Ford’s megaphone-in-print for spewing antisemitism. In 1920 the weekly newspaper began publishing articles under the headline “The International Jew: The World’s Problem.” It also printed an English translation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fraudulent document first published in Russia in 1903 that was supposedly a Jewish plan for world domination. The Anti-Defamation League denounced Ford’s newspaper with a pamphlet called The Poison Pen, and more than 100 prominent non-Jews, including President Woodrow Wilson and former presidents William Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, signed “The Perils of Racial Prejudice,” a petition calling the “International Jew” series “un-American, un-Christian agitation.” Nevertheless, Ford kept at it until 1927, when the Independent accused Jewish lawyer and farming advocate Aaron Sapiro and others of trying to control the U.S. wheat industry. Sapiro sued for libel. Sensing defeat, Ford issued an apology and closed the paper, claiming he never knew what was in it. In 1938 the industrialist happily accepted from the German government the highest award the Nazis conferred upon noncitizens. His paper’s most vicious articles, collected and translated into German, were among Hitler’s favorite reading.
In 1938 longtime friends Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh accepted the same prestigious award from the Nazis. Besides fame, fortune and mechanical ingenuity, they had in common extreme right-wing politics; a strong preference for Nazi Germany over Soviet Russia; membership in the America First Committee, which opposed U.S. involvement in World War II; and antisemitism—a firm belief that Jews had caused many of the world’s ills, including the imminent war.
While Ford, who claimed, “When Charles comes out here, we only talk about the Jews,” had been forced to fold his antisemitic newspaper in 1927, Lindbergh carried on expressing his prejudices in various writings and speeches. In a 1939 Reader’s Digest article he declared that Americans’ “most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood,” must be saved from “dilution by foreign races.” In a 1941 speech at an America First rally, he warned of the danger posed by the “Jewish race” and its “ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.” Other prominent bigots preached the same pro-Nazi, noninterventionist, anti-Jewish gospel, including Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest and popular radio host (who, like Ford, published The Protocols of the Elders of Zion).
With Europe at war, Charles Lindbergh testified to Congress in 1941 against the Lend-Lease Bill, which would allow the U.S. to supply arms to the Allies. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded publicly at a press conference, attacking Lindbergh’s call for strict neutrality (privately, he told Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau he believed the celebrity aviator was pro-Nazi). Lindbergh fired back by resigning his commission in the U.S. Army Air Corps and then delivering a speech at an America First rally in Iowa, in which he told the noninterventionist crowd that the villains pushing the U.S. into war were Roosevelt, the British and the Jews.
After Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh tried to get his commission back. FDR ordered the request be politely declined. The pilot offered his consulting services to aviation companies and flew combat missions as a civilian in the Pacific for about six months. Following the war, Lindbergh toured Europe’s concentration camps; a posthumously published 1977 autobiography reveals his horrified reaction. But Lindbergh never really recanted his pro-German views or preference for Hitler over Stalin, saying he thought destroying the Nazis would leave Europe vulnerable to the “barbarism of Soviet Russia’s forces, causing possibly the fatal wounding of Western civilization.”
Controversy remains over FDR’s response to the Holocaust. Though historians argue about how domestic politics hampered his efforts to help Europe’s Jews, they generally agree he could, and should, have done more. Even his personal attitudes were contradictory. There is evidence Roosevelt shared the genteel antisemitism common among his class in the 1930s, but he also appointed a number of Jews to high positions in his administration, including Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau.
The antisemitism in FDR’s State Department, however, was neither genteel nor gentle. Noxious assistant secretary of state Breckinridge Long and others deliberately delayed granting visas that could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. When Morgenthau, helped by the “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews,” finally convinced FDR to set up the War Refugee Board to speed emergency immigration, it was too little, too late. Homegrown antisemites nevertheless thought Roosevelt was doing too much. Vocal pro-Nazi Father Coughlin led anti-Jewish rallies, while the head of the German American Bund called Roosevelt “Rosenfeld” and labeled his New Deal policies the “Jew Deal.” The government eventually shut down the bund and other “seditious” organizations and helped silence Coughlin.
Hollywood—i.e., the motion picture industry—has always been a target of antisemites, who excoriate it for undermining so-called American values. Henry Ford’s 1920s newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, was typical in denouncing movie producers “of Semitic origin…[who] don’t know how filthy their stuff is—it is so natural to them.”
To reassure the public, studio heads hired, in 1922, conservative Republican Protestant Will Hays as industry spokesperson and, in 1934, staunch Catholic (and antisemite) Joseph Breen to enforce a severe self-censorship code. Producers virtually eliminated Jewish characters and themes from the screen, resulting in films about the Leo Frank lynching (They Won’t Forget) and France’s antisemitism-driven Dreyfus Affair (The Life of Emile Zola) that, bizarrely, made no references to Jews. Until Confessions of a Nazi Spy (pictured, 1939), no major studio film dared attack Nazism. World War II–era combat films about group solidarity trumping ethnic and regional differences often feature an urban Jew as a minor character. But not until the 1947 films Crossfire and Gentlemen’s Agreement was pervasive, all-American antisemitism explored. The vilification of Jews in the industry spiked during the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s and still issues today from neo-Nazis and other extremists.
Holocaust denial has emerged as a potent form of nonviolent antisemitism. As several historians have noted, refusing to recognize the Nazis’ millions of victims essentially kills them a second time and, in effect, makes antisemitism acceptable by rejecting its most horrific result.
An international phenomenon, Holocaust denial was first fueled in the U.S. by Willis Carto, who founded the Liberty Lobby in 1955, in part to spread the antisemitic, fascist ideas of political philosopher Francis Parker Yockey. Carto established the Institute for Historical Review and Noontide Press to publish pseudoscholarly antisemitic writings. Northwestern University electrical engineering professor Arthur Butz wrote one of the first major American books of this sort, The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The Case Against the Presumed Extermination of European Jewry (1976). Butz’s supporters use his academic credentials to dignify his ideas, which legitimate historians thoroughly refute.
Holocaust denial has been embraced by a range of contemporary antisemitic and anti-Israel organizations, including neo-Nazis and the Palestinian group Hamas. Considering the overwhelming evidence, from written records to film to living witnesses, denial seems like sheer lunacy. But haters neither need nor want rationality, preferring their unshakable belief that the Holocaust never happened because they say it didn’t.
American Jews and African Americans have had a tangled relationship. Hate groups from the KKK to contemporary neo-Nazis have made Jews and blacks their favorite targets, helping forge a bond between them. In the 1930s dozens of European Jewish professors, forbidden to work in Nazi-controlled areas, found refuge in historic black colleges of the southern U.S. Recognizing their shared legacy of prejudice and persecution, students and teachers created unusually strong connections. The 1960s civil rights movement counted a disproportionate number of Jews among its white allies, tragically symbolized by the 1964 KKK triple murder of black activist James Chaney and two Jewish colleagues, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, during a Mississippi voter registration drive.
Yet there’s also a history of tension between the groups and mutual charges of prejudice. Martin Luther King Jr. and author James Baldwin both condemned Jewish landlords and shopkeepers for mistreating urban blacks, and civil rights leaders Stokely Carmichael and Jesse Jackson Jr. have made antisemitic comments. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan delivered a May 2013 sermon ranting about “satanic Jews” and the “synagogue of Satan.” A recent Anti-Defamation League survey found four times as many African Americans as whites hold antisemitic views.
American fundamentalist and evangelical Christian sects that favor a literalist interpretation of the Bible have understood the 1948 establishment of Israel as the first step toward the end-time and eventual apocalypse. According to various New Testament statements, especially in the book of Revelation, the return of the Jewish people to their biblical homeland in Israel is a prerequisite for the second coming of Jesus. These Christian groups are thus staunch supporters of Israel.
This so-called Christian Zionism seems based on spiritual self-interest more than humanistic, political or pro-Semitic principles. Some strong supporters of Zionism, such as Christian Broadcasting Network chairman Pat Robertson and Southern Baptist minister Jerry Falwell, have undermined their pro-Israel stance with anti-Jewish statements and conspiracy theories. In 1999 Falwell predicted Satan would soon reveal himself, adding, “Of course, he’ll be Jewish.” Ironically, some of the more moderate, mainstream Protestant denominations are less supportive of Israel, decrying Christian Zionism as an impediment to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Anti-Defamation League’s position illustrates the paradox: The organization tends to welcome pro-Israel sentiments, but it also continuously monitors Christian antisemitism, expressing anger and demanding (and often getting) apologies from Falwell, Robertson and others.